Inside Film

Gosford Park at 20: How Robert Altman’s brutal look at the upper classes unintentionally spawned Downton Abbey

Gosford Park is about to be re-released on The Icon Film Channel and included in the BFI Altman season. But no one pays much attention any more to its darker elements, or to Altman’s subversive approach to the country house genre, says Geoffrey Macnab

Friday 14 May 2021 06:38
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<p>Maggie Smith as Constance, Countess of Trentham, and Kelly Macdonald as her maid in ‘Gosford Park’ in 2001</p>

Maggie Smith as Constance, Countess of Trentham, and Kelly Macdonald as her maid in ‘Gosford Park’ in 2001

When the Kansas City-born maverick Robert Altman came to the UK in 2001 to make costume drama Gosford Park, he had no intention at all of celebrating the good old days of Upstairs, Downstairs. The director of Nashville and M*A*S*H was an irreverent satirist known for subverting genres. He deliberately set the film in the early 1930s, just as traditional country house living was coming to an end. 

"By the end of the Second World War, this sort of thing was over,” Altman remarked of an ossified British social system that, as he witheringly put it, gave working-class women two choices of career. “If they weren’t housemaids, they’d probably have to be prostitutes.”

The irony today is self-evident. Altman’s attempts at skewering the British upper classes had exactly the reverse effect of what he had originally intended. Buoyed by the film’s success, his screenwriter on Gosford Park, Julian Fellowes, went on to write another costume drama, Downton Abbey. This hugely popular TV series was set in an earlier period, between 1912 and 1926, and provided a far rosier, less coruscating view of country house living. Instead of Altman’s barbed and vicious view of the class system, it purveyed expertly crafted escapist nostalgia.

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